Why Baseball Books? Oh, And Here's A New One


There is a website, Grantland, which has my current favorite movie reviewer, the perceptive and passionate Wesley Morris. The rest of Grantland is, mostly, about sports. It features ESPN personalities (it's owned by ESPN) such as the smug Bill Simmons and the wholly evil Chris Connelly (who sadly does some work with Morris.)

It's one of those websites which shoves pop-up menus in your eyeholes anyplace you move the mouse (pointer, finger, whatever.) And a while back one of those eyeball intrusions functioned for me as the click bait it was intended to be.

"Baseball is fading everywhere -- except, it seems, the bookstore." So sayeth "Grantland" writer Bryan Curtis, or whomever writes his leads, in a dull and rambling essay (apologies, "post") about the sorry nature of baseball books, whose continuing publication Curtis attempts to fathom. Essentially, he believes that baseball is a boring sport for boring people, particularly people outside what I presume is his oh-so-happy-to-be-18-34 demographic. (To quote Chesterton, and rearrange, a person very proud of how young they currently are probably has little else to be proud of.)

Curtis concludes that baseball books feed an endless maw of nostalgia junkies incapable of realizing the True Badassness which cool sports fans find in football and fighting (Curtis's most written-on sports, from a quick scan of his Grantland articles.) They are published for and read by the lowest of the low; middle-aged people. Baseball books are "instant replay for baby boomers."

That ridiculous little phrase conveys quite a bit. Boomers, of course, invented instant replay; Curtis is implying that such a technological marvel is beyond their old-folk comprehension, much in the same way that only old fogies could prefer baseball to brain-damaging sports and dumb stupid dumb boring books to Internet articles.

I haven't read most of the books Curtis mentions. Nor, I imagine, has he. I did read "Down To The Last Pitch" and "The Summer Of Beer And Whiskey"; the first, I enjoyed as one author's memories of a time in his life he enjoyed. The second, I found a bit too dry for my taste. (Curtis gives it his highest praise, calling it "well-recieved.")

Baseball books are "organized around heroism," Curtis holds. But this isn't remotely true. "Last Pitch" isn't; "Summer Of Beer" isn't, nor are the others I recently read ("Color Blind," about integrated Dakota townball teams, and "The Devil's Snake Curve," which I'll get to in a bit.)

The "Field Of Dreams", George Will, baseball-as-nostalgia for Better Days Lone Gone cliche is annoying. To me. Obviously others enjoy it. And what's wrong with that? Different people enjoy different things. Many book readers like to read books in a certain genre with familiar themes. (This probably helps keep publishing afloat.) My late mother devoured romance novels. My SO reads detective novels. My brother rips through fantasy books. All of these people read other materials and other books, and were/are enormously curious about the world around them. That they fall back on a certain type of book as their favorite escapist reading says nothing about them as people or their capability for grasping unfamiliar ideas.

There's a particular tone in Curtis's article, one which some younger readers may not be familiar with. (And I'd only suggest reading the article to those who like reading wannabe cultural commentators with demonstrably little to say.) It was quite common in the late 1960's. It's very assured, but in almost a defensive sort of fashion. It was a very popular tone for writers to adopt when they championed movies and television as the New, as the Future, over print (and especially books) as the Old, the Past, the Dead Weight from which pioneers who appreciated the grooviness of, say, Warhol films were ahead of the squares in rejecting.

Because, again, to celebrate an entertainment trend and demonize another based on solely the age demographics of whom enjoys what is really rather slavish. By defining yourself as being for the New and against the Old, you've committed to letting others make your entertainment choices for you. (The person who steadfastly says "I'm not political, I have independent opinions" is generally locked and bound to having an opinion dead square in the middle, making them the least independent of all . . . and the person who is most determined to roll with youth culture and reject anything old-fashioned inevitably becomes the most "get off my lawn" immobile old crank as they age.)

To put it another way: I don't watch soap operas. I find them cheesy. But I take no pleasure in the fact that soap operas are dying (except that maybe their decline will encourage some Americans to learn Spanish.) The success or failure of soap operas means nothing to me, besides some sadness that others might be losing an entertainment form they enjoy. What I like, I like, because I've put time and effort into appreciating it. If others put the same time and effort into something else, am I supposed to see that as a threat? Does my every amusement have to be ranked and listed against the awesomeness of those who like/dislike it; must I worry if my tastes coincide too closely with others I'm supposed to disparage? Not in my worldview; but, this is probably not true-blue American. I suppose I am no better than a terrorist.


Kansas-born, Twin Cities-living Josh Ostergaard has fallen out of love with baseball and America. Maybe. His new book, "The Devil's Snake Curve," tracks this bit of a breakup, and it's certainly not "organized around heroism." It has the rhythm of a bathroom book, something you'd read while on the pot, with a collection of short baseball stories and anecdotes which Ostergaard claims to have mostly discovered doing his own research. I have no reason to discount the research; the anecdotes are completely new to me.

His goal is for the anecdotes to gather a growing power, seeming random at first, than coalescing into a broader theme. Does it work? Yes, and no. His theme is deconstructing both the baseball-as-symbol-of-what-was-good-about-America myth and the notion that America deserved to ever be considered "good" at all. This comes through, but I don't think it does the way Ostergaard wants it to.

There are works of art about losing love which can strike some audiences as deeply poignant and others as "oh, get over it already," and "The Devil's Snake Curve" falls somewhere in between for me. Ostergaard describes himself as a fortunate son, meant to succeed in medical school, now living the poor life in his late-20s/early-30s, upset with the way privilege and power and class work in this country. He's just as disheartened with how the game of baseball he loved as a child has revealed itself, the more he looks into it, as something that's been corrupt since the get-go.

There's a essential problem with the book. If you like baseball, just like it, whether or not you are aware of all its sins and hypocrisy, you want baseball stories that remind you why you enjoy the sport. If you don't like baseball, for whatever reason, you're not likely to keep reading a book that uses baseball stories as a metaphor for all that's wrong with America. The vast majority of Ostergaard's anecdotes are ones which reinforce his theme of baseball=idealism=America=bullshit. I got the point rather quickly, and reading through the rest of Ostergaard's anecdotes started to become repetitive. (It's structured like a bathroom book but it may be the least "think about something besides pooping so you can poop" bathroom book I've ever read.)

I understand what he's expressing, yet I'm a bit too old for it. At my advanced age, I feel as though every country, every institution, is fairy dark and self-serving if you dig into it deeply enough. (I'm sure the history of Finland or curling have their unpleasant pasts.) Of course I don't think such digging is worthless or should be avoided. But I'm over the angst Ostergaard agonizes over here. Super-patriots, super sports fans, and super taste-snobs like Bryan Curtis inhabit a universe of "us against them" I just have no time for anymore.

And not that Ostergaard's description of his breakup with baseball and America isn't well-written. It is; he's no "replay for baby boomers" wordsmith slouch. Here's his take on a recent World Series, as someone who values participating in playing baseball over consuming it as another form of celebrity worship:

"Innings passed. Millionaires threw balls, millionaires hit balls, millionaires ran. Millionaires in the dugout told millionaires in the field what to do. Millionaires in the executive suites put pressure on the managers. Millionaires fortunate enough to buy tickets to the game sat in the stands, drank beer, and talked on cell phones. Millionaires at the helm of giant corporations ran advertisements between innings and during pitching changes, and people excluded from the game watched passively at home."

You can sense that Ostergaard isn't into "us against them." He's into "myself against myself"; he wonders if his love for baseball isn't a wish to celebrate something he once idealized which never truly existed. In the end, he allows himself some excitement that Kansas City "went 25-7 during spring training, and despite knowing better, it gives me hope for the season. Today I believe false hope is better than no hope."

That's fairly close to where I'm at with professional sports in general and baseball in particular -- my illusions are more-or-less gone, which doesn't stop me from choosing to embrace my illusion when I need a break from reality. I can't quite recommend Ostergaard's book; it's too grim for baseball fans and too baseball for those wanting to delve into larger issues of grimness. I give Ostergaard enormous credit, though, for being a thoughtful/honest writer, a hard-working researcher, and a prose stylist obsessive over his word choices just as ballplayers obsess over rosin bags and batting-glove Velcro.

None of which will ever get Ostergaard a job working for Grantland, churning out facile posts about why A is far awesomer than B. I doubt Ostergaard cares. And I suspect the likes of Curtis do care, and know they're in the literary bush leagues, and desperately want to convince the rest of us that being all over a big ESPN website means they are better than losers like Ostergaard who write from a truly independent-minded place. To which I can only say, best of luck. And fuck you, you baseball-hating hipster asshole.

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